Friday, April 30, 2010


The oil slick from the offshore rig that blew up in the Gulf of Mexico last week has reached land, and oil is starting to wash up in the marshes. This could be a major catastrophe.

Before you start blaming British Petroleum or the government or the Obama administration for allowing bidding on new offshore oil leases, just stop. So far as we know, this rig was no worse run than any other. By and large, the system that bring oil from wells to our cars is remarkably clean; only a tiny percentage escapes.

But no system is perfect. Leaks are inevitable, somewhere, sometime. We, and regulators, need to be vigilant, and perhaps we should keep drilling out of the most sensitive areas. But as long as we keep using oil, spills are inevitable.

The only way to reduce them is to reduce the amount of oil we use. Concerned about oil spills? Drive less. Take the train. Support the construction of nuclear power plants, and offshore wind farms, and new long-distance power lines. Do things and support things that will move us toward alternative energy. Don't bother looking for someone to blame, because everyone who uses oil is partly at fault.

Babel in Reverse

According to linguists interviewed by the NY Times, 800 different languages are spoken in New York City. This caused Amy Davidson to muse that the Tower of Babel is "the least realistic passage in the Bible. . . . New York has always been Babel, and things have always been built."

Demography is the Master Science

Very often, a look at the demographics explains a lot of what is happening in politics or business. Consider the white panic behind the new Arizona immigration law. This is William Frey of Brookings, via Andrew Sullivan:
[T]he state’s swift Hispanic growth has been concentrated in young adults and children, creating a “cultural generation gap” with largely white baby boomers and older populations, the same demographic that predominates in the recent Tea Party protests. A shorthand measure for this cultural generation gap in a state is the disparity between children and seniors in their white population shares. Arizona leads the nation on this gap at 40 (where 43 percent of its child population is white compared with 83 percent for seniors). But the states of Nevada, California, Texas, New Mexico, and Florida are not that far behind. . . . Nationally this gap is 25 percentage points.

Should the Petitioners' Names Be Public?

Great article by Dahlia Lithwick about oral arguments in the Supreme Court over Doe vs. Reed. The case concerns whether the names of people who sign a petition to put a measure on ballot should be released to the public. Justice Scalia:
for the first century of our existence, even voting was public—you either did it raising your hand or by voice. . . running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. And the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone calls when you exercise your political rights to legislate.

Hand-Drawn Maps

Interesting feature by Julia Turner at Slate on why hand-drawn maps are sometimes more useful than those generated by Google or Mapquest.

In archaeology, I find hand-drawn sketch maps extremely useful. A sketch like the one below, by my former colleague Lisa Kraus, provides more information about a site than you would get from even a very detailed topographic survey. A trained eye can pick out things about features that are barely present in the physical data; I have often been surprised to find that a feature that looks perfectly round to my eye shows up in a topographic map as a couple of lumps in a vague trapezoid. An experienced archaeologist can spot patterns within the noise, seeing rectangular foundations within piles of rubble, or patterns of ditches and banks so subtle they would only show up on a topographic map with 1-centimeter topo lines.

On the other hand there are things for which sketch maps are not accurate, like gauging the distances and alignments of widely separated features. For that sort of thing, an accurate survey as essential. So ideally you would have both an overall site plan based on a real survey or an aerial photograph and a sketch showing the interpretations of the archaeologist.

Burqa Banning

Belgium just became the first European nation to ban full-face veils in public places, although there are lots of cities with municipal bans. Belgium is in danger of splitting because of disputes between Flemish-speaking and French-speaking populations, but they all got together to pass the burqa ban. The French government has promised a similar law, and bans have been introduced in several other countries.

I continue to think of this as a silly thing to worry about. As the NY Times notes, fewer than 2000 women wear the burqa in France, out of a Muslim population of about 5 million. The thinking behind the bans goes something like this:
The full veil has been condemned by European politicians of the right and left as an affront to the dignity of women and, because it hides a woman's face, as a security risk in schools, banks and government offices. André Gerin, a member of Parliament who led a nine-month inquiry into the full-face veil in France, also qualified it as the tip of an iceberg behind which lurk radical Islamic preachers seeking to impose a fundamentalist and politicized vision of their religion on French Muslims.
I think, if you want immigrants to assimilate into your country, you might start by treating them with respect. Bashing their customs for easy political points is the opposite of respect. It will only delay assimilation and further embitter the sort of people likely to be drawn to fundamentalism.

My advice on this, as on many other questions, is: resist the urge to tell other people what to do.

Once you let go of the desire to control other people's lives, you may find that the world is a lot less threatening and a much more comfortable place to be.

Crashing Visions, Euro Version

Big changes are hard to bring about and, when they do happen, usually have very serious costs. The world isn't the way it is for no reason at all, and big changes usually hurt somebody a lot.

This is the lesson I draw from the European economic situation. All the smart economists seem to think that the real problem in Greece, Italy and Spain isn't excessive spending or debt, but the Euro. The vision of one currency for Europe was appealing for a lot of reasons: it would encourage trade and investment, make it much easier for Europeans to travel, and symbolize the increasing political unity of the continent. Skeptics said it would never work, because the countries involved were too different from each other. Now it looks like the skeptics were right. If the Euro survives, it will be because politicians in southern Europe decide to accept a decade of economic pain as the price for remaining in the Euro club. I'll let Paul Krugman explain:

The fact is that three years ago none of the countries now in or near crisis seemed to be in deep fiscal trouble. Even Greece’s 2007 budget deficit was no higher, as a share of G.D.P., than the deficits the United States ran in the mid-1980s (morning in America!), while Spain actually ran a surplus. And all of the countries were attracting large inflows of foreign capital, largely because markets believed that membership in the euro zone made Greek, Portuguese and Spanish bonds safe investments.

Then came the global financial crisis. Those inflows of capital dried up; revenues plunged and deficits soared; and membership in the euro, which had encouraged markets to love the crisis countries not wisely but too well, turned into a trap.

What’s the nature of the trap? During the years of easy money, wages and prices in the crisis countries rose much faster than in the rest of Europe. Now that the money is no longer rolling in, those countries need to get costs back in line.

But that’s a much harder thing to do now than it was when each European nation had its own currency. Back then, costs could be brought in line by adjusting exchange rates — e.g., Greece could cut its wages relative to German wages simply by reducing the value of the drachma in terms of Deutsche marks. Now that Greece and Germany share the same currency, however, the only way to reduce Greek relative costs is through some combination of German inflation and Greek deflation. And since Germany won’t accept inflation, deflation it is.

The problem is that deflation — falling wages and prices — is always and everywhere a deeply painful process. It invariably involves a prolonged slump with high unemployment. And it also aggravates debt problems, both public and private, because incomes fall while the debt burden doesn’t.

I won't make any predictions. I merely point out that choices have consequences, and that most of the important ones lead to pain of one kind or another.

Oh, I have one more thought: as we move toward a cashless economy, in which you can buy almost anything with a debit card, does having a single currency matter that much? If people don't actually have to change money and worry about using up all the francs or lire in their pockets before they go home, will they care so much about the Euro?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Things that Remind me of Poems

A horse chestnut tree in Montrose Park today.
Oh chestnut tree, oh great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
Oh body swayed to music, oh brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

--W.B. Yeats.

In Today's Attention-Seeking News

Some people have too much time on their hands:

A would-be saboteur arrested today at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland made the bizarre claim that he was from the future. Eloi Cole, a strangely dressed young man, said that he had travelled back in time to prevent the LHC from destroying the world.

The LHC successfully collided particles at record force earlier this week, a milestone Mr Cole was attempting to disrupt by stopping supplies of Mountain Dew to the experiment's vending machines. He also claimed responsibility for the infamous baguette sabotage in November last year.

Mr Cole was seized by Swiss police after CERN security guards spotted him rooting around in bins. He explained that he was looking for fuel for his 'time machine power unit', a device that resembled a kitchen blender.

Police said Mr Cole, who was wearing a bow tie and rather too much tweed for his age, would not reveal his country of origin. "Countries do not exist where I am from. The discovery of the Higgs boson led to limitless power, the elimination of poverty and Kit-Kats for everyone. It is a communist chocolate hellhole and I'm here to stop it ever happening."
The funny thing is that the discovery of the Higgs boson would lead to nothing at all, which is why I hope they don't find it.


Nice slide show at Smithsonian Magazine of the gardens at Filoli, a splendid relic of Gilded Age San Francisco.

I love garden gates through which hidden wonders can be glimpsed.

Cape Wind Approved

After a nine-year struggle, the proposed Cape Wind wind farm off the Massachusetts coast has been approved by the Obama administration and looks set to go ahead.

A very minor victory for renewable energy, but perhaps it will help other projects move ahead.

In a related note, people and businesses in those parts of Europe with a lot of wind farms are getting creative about ways to use more power when the wind is blowing. Denmark and the Netherlands charge more for power when their windmills aren't turning, giving their customers a strong incentive to vary their power consumption:

In a 5.5-million cubic foot (155,742 cubic meter) warehouse at the mouth of the Elbe River, [the company] unloads and stores the catch from fishing boats sailing in the North Sea. Ordinarily, the warehouse needs to be kept at a chilly -4 F (-20 C). But the temperature inside can be pushed as low as -22 F (-30 C) when local windmills are spinning. The deep freeze gives the warehouse breathing room at times when the wind -- and the power -- dies down. Then, if allowed to warm slowly, the facility still will stay cold enough for the frozen fish. “It’s not that we’re using less power, it’s just that we’re using it when it’s cheaper,” GOOSS technical director Gunter Krins says.

In the summer, the well-insulated warehouse warms about 2 degrees F (1.1 degrees C) every 24 hours when the cooling is turned off. In the winter, the building warms at about half that rate. Depending on the season, that means the shelves stacked with frozen fish can “store” energy equivalent to a week’s worth of refrigeration.

The Real Adam Smith

Most people who have heard of Adam Smith know him only as an advocate for free markets, author of the famous sentences,
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.
But Smith was actually not a believer in unregulated capitalism. As Amartya Sen explains in this essay, he was primarily a moral thinker. He believed that society's leaders should be constantly promoting "humanity, justice, generosity, and public spirit", which were, he thought, as necessary to a successful society as economic production. Smith also supported a long list of government interventions in the economy, including support for new industries, prosecution of fraud and imposture, protection of working people from exploitation and abuse, and, especially, action to break up monopolies and cabals. He was a bitter opponent of slavery. As Sen summarizes,
Smith was convinced of the necessity of a well-functioning market economy, but not of its sufficiency.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Maunsell Sea Forts

Built off Britain during World War II, to house searchlights and anti-aircraft guns, these are now prime destinations for British fans of modern ruins. They were designed by Guy Maunsell, who went on to design the 'Mulberry' temporary harbors used to supply the Allied armies after D-Day.

Whose Money?

The mantra of the grouchy conservative is "my money." "I work hard for my money. You can't take my money. I don't want the government giving my money to people who won't work."

This whole line of thought assumes that your money, that is, your power to buy things, derives from your own efforts. It does not. Even if you are a one-person business, your ability to buy things depends only a little bit on how hard you work. What determines what you can buy is the economy and society you live in.

Take away the vast apparatus of the modern economy, and you would be working all day for a bowl of acorn soup in a hut roofed with elm bark. Move to Somalia, and you might be working all day for a loaf of bread that is stolen by thugs with guns before you can eat it.

Your money buys you things like iPods and gas heat and BMWs, not because you work hard, but because you live in a gigantically rich society with an extraordinarily complex and productive economy. Your work has value only because of knowledge built up by generations of people who came before us, and because of work done by millions of other people all over the world. Your ability to buy the things you want depends on a gigantic web of interconnections. To manage that web, we need huge, powerful governments.

It is a fantasy to think that we could base our complex economy on neighborly trust, honest dealing and and trading chickens for health care. Our level of economic development requires complex regulations. Look what just happened in one of the last unregulated economic sectors, derivatives trading. Boom. So now we will have regulation of derivatives trading, and the financial sector can go on. It is possible that some economic sectors could function with less regulation than they have, but very few could function without heavy state intervention. Anarchy, as you can tell from a glance at every place in history that didn't have a functioning government, is a disaster, and to ride herd on our vast, complicated, enormously rich societies requires very strong sheriffs.

Sure, you work hard. So do Eskimos and yak herders and Chinese coal miners. You are not richer than they are because you work harder; you are richer because of the place you occupy in the system of the world. You are rich because of the whole astonishing apparatus of our society, from primary schools to highways to courtrooms to conferences where scientists and bureaucrats hash out the details of which chemicals should be allowed in which products.

You are not alone, and nothing that is "yours" really belongs just to you.

Tea Party Logic

"All the government does is take my money and give it to other people," Hess told me. Hess's own salary is paid by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security; he works for M.I.T.'s Lincoln Laboratory, studying chemical and biological warfare.

--Jill Lepore, in The New Yorker

Black Locusts

Black locust trees blooming in Rock Creek Park today. I have always found them very beautiful, and wondered why more people don't admire them.


This weekend I was searching through my boxes for old tax forms, to respond to a query from the IRS, when I stumbled across this picture of myself. This was taken at a Guy Fawkes Day bonfire in London, in 1990.

Science and Philosophy

Jerry Fodor, a philosopher interested in brain science, and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a brain scientist interested in philosophy, have written a book called What Darwin Got Wrong. They think that Darwin's model of how evolution takes place, generally called "natural selection," makes no logical sense. And they are not the first to think that the whole businesses rests on some kind of philosophical error; philosophers have been pointing out the problems with the logic of evolution since the 1860s.

From a review by Kevin Malik in the Literary Review:

Some genes have multiple functions while others act as 'master genes' helping to switch bits of DNA on and off. Master genes seem not to recognise species boundaries. The same master genes for eye development can be found in sea urchins (in which they remain unexpressed), fruit flies and humans. The implication is that major differences between species may be less about the evolution of new genes than about the same genes being regulated and expressed in new ways.

According to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, these discoveries reveal not just the complexity of the evolutionary process but also the wrongness of Darwinian theory. . . .

There are two halves to the argument. The first part of the book is a breezy tour through recent biological advances, particularly in the field of evolutionary developmental biology (or 'evo devo'). The Darwinian idea that organisms become adapted to their environment through natural selection cannot be true, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini insist, because it is a theory that relies entirely on external factors as the drivers of evolution, whereas the new biology has shown the importance of internal organisation and regulation.

Most biologists at the forefront of this research remain, however, committed Darwinians. Why? Because, suggest Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, they have failed to understand the fundamental conceptual flaws of Darwinism. The second part of What Darwin Got Wrong attempts to lay out these flaws.

At the heart of the argument is the critique of what Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini call the 'selection-for' fallacy: the belief that natural selection chooses particular phenotypes because they provide the organism with an evolutionary advantage. This cannot be, they argue, because of the presence of 'co-existent' traits. Some bodily features that Darwinists claim have been selected for in the course of evolution possess more than one trait or property, only one of which actually increases fitness (the Darwinian term for the capacity to reproduce), but all of which may be correlated with increased fitness.

A heart is an organ that both pumps blood and makes a noise. Pumping blood efficiently increases fitness; making a noise does not. But since all hearts that pump blood also make a noise, both pumping blood and making a noise are correlated with fitness. 'The adaptationist story', Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini observe, 'was supposed to be that traits are selected-for when they are correlated with fitness, which by assumption both ... are.' So how, they ask 'could it be true that either is selected-for and the other is not?'

Humans, they argue, can make a distinction between a trait such as an efficient heart that truly increases fitness and a trait such as a noisy heart that may be correlated with greater fitness but does not itself provide an evolutionary advantage. That's because humans possess minds and are able to use reason, and judgement, and ask 'what if' questions - 'What if hearts did not make a noise?', and 'What if hearts pumped less efficiently?'

Nature, however, is mindless. It cannot ask such questions and so cannot make such distinctions. Hence, 'the claim that selection is the mechanism of evolution cannot be true'.

I am not nearly so skilled in logic as professors Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, so I will limit my critique to pointing out that whatever their logic shows, natural selection does, in fact, take place. Put mice in a big cage where they have to fight each other for food but don't have to worry about predation, and they get bigger with each generation. Expose insects to a new chemical poison, and they evolve resistance to it. It happens. If we cannot model this logically, this is not a problem with natural selection, it is a problem with our logic.

The way physicists do math sometimes drives mathematicians crazy; you can't do that! they shout, to which the physicists respond that, well, their forbidden assumptions seem to be getting them the right results.

I suppose this problem goes all the way back to Zeno's paradoxes, you know, Achilles first has to cover half the distance to the tortoise, then half of that, then half of that, and so on forever, so he will never pass the tortoise. Since a human can, in fact, catch a tortoise any time he or she feels like it, there must be something wrong with Zeno's logic. And that is how I feel about all these attacks on the logical construction of evolutionary thought. None of it matters, because natural selections happens all around us all the time.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


In Belgium, one of the most intact Renaissance cities in northern Europe.


A circular city in Iran, built in the 3rd century AD.

Big Numbers

Number of genes in the human genome: 25,000
Number of base pairs in the human genome: 3 billion
Number of neurons in the human brain 100 billion
Number of galaxies: 500 billion
Number of connections between neurons in a human brain: one thousand trillion

Luke's Binoculars

An interesting future weapon:
The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has tapped Northrop Grummanto develop binoculars that will tap the subconscious mind. The Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System program, informally called "Luke’s Binoculars," combines advanced optics with electro-encephalogram electrodes that can, DARPA believes, be used to alert the wearer to a threat before the conscious mind has processed the information. . . .
The idea is that your brain recognizes some images as threatening at a subconscious level. This generates identifiable brain wave patterns. The binoculars, the theory goes, will be more sensitive to threats than the conscious brain, especially the conscious brain of a relatively inexperienced soldier. It will then call the soldier's attention (red highlighting?) to the threat his own brain has perceived.

Along the same lines, experiments have recently confirmed that experienced, highly trained soldiers are more sensitive to risk than other people, presumably at least in part because they are more sensitive to those subconscious threat detectors.


An Ionian coin of the 6th century BC.

Probability Made Easy

Another great Steven Strogartz math column in the NY Times, this one about probability:
The probability that one of these women has breast cancer is 0.8 percent. If a woman has breast cancer, the probability is 90 percent that she will have a positive mammogram. If a woman does not have breast cancer, the probability is 7 percent that she will still have a positive mammogram. Imagine a woman who has a positive mammogram. What is the probability that she actually has breast cancer?. . .

The right answer is 9 percent.

How can it be so low? . . . the analysis becomes almost transparent if we translate the original information from percentages and probabilities into natural frequencies:

Eight out of every 1,000 women have breast cancer. Of these 8 women with breast cancer, 7 will have a positive mammogram. Of the remaining 992 women who don’t have breast cancer, some 70 will still have a positive mammogram. Imagine a sample of women who have positive mammograms in screening. How many of these women actually have breast cancer?

Since a total of 7 + 70 = 77 women have positive mammograms, and only 7 of them truly have breast cancer, the probability of having breast cancer given a positive mammogram is 7 out of 77, which is 1 in 11, or about 9 percent.

As this example shows, many probability problems become much simpler when you start by imagining a complete set of possible outcomes, in this case, for 1000 women who have had mammograms. To figure out the probability of rolling an 8 on two dice -- regular six-sided dice -- you can start by listing all the possible outcomes (there are 36, 6x6) and just counting how many add up to 8.

Monday, April 26, 2010


I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.

--Mark Twain

Florida Panther News

Biologists have visited four Florida panther dens this year and found three healthy kittens at each; the 12 babies are a good sign for the species, which at one point was down to only 30 cats.

How to Give a Bad Paper

Michael Smith:
I just got back from the Society for American Archaeology meetings in St. Louis. I have always been amazed at the low quality of many presentations at these meetings, starting at the first one I attended as an undergraduate. It seems that many archaeologists must WANT to give bad presentations. If that is the case, then I can be helpful and give you some tips on giving bad presentations. Here goes:

1. Read your paper from a prepared text. This will almost always result in a worse presentation than if you talk from notes, or talk from your slides. This is an excellent way to give a boring talk.

2. Don’t talk TO the audience! Look at your notes or the paper you are reading. Look at the screen. Look anywhere but at the audience

3. Go over the time limit. . . .

And one of my personal pet peeves:

d. Use a pointer to show the audience something that is painfully obvious on the slide. So if "Lemuria" is indicated with big bold type, go ahead and use the pointer to show the audience where Lemuria is. This will help insult your audience (always a good idea when trying to give a bad talk). It helps you look unprofessional and also puts more time on the clock in anticipation of running over the limit.


Back When Things were Simple

In August, 1919 Lytton Strachey, one of the luminaries of the "Bloomsbury Group," published a little essay on Voltaire in the New Republic, which they have now put online:
Between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Industrial Revolution, three men were the intellectual masters of Europe—Bernard of Clairvaux, Erasmus, and Voltaire. In Bernard the piety and the superstition of the Middle Ages attained their supreme embodiment; in Erasmus the learning and humanity of the Renaissance. But Erasmus was a tragic figure. The great revolution in the human mind, of which he had been the presiding genius, ended in failure; he lived to see the tide of barbarism rising once more over the world; and it was left to Voltaire to carry off the final victory.
I have never seen a better expression of the hubris of nineteenth-century liberalism, with its easy faith in progress and contempt for everything old and out-of-date, nor of the "Great Man" narrative of history. How astonishing that only a year after the end of World War I, a noted intellectual could write about the "final victory" of learning and reason over barbarism.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Green Children of Wolfpit

William of Newburgh, an English historian of the Twelfth Century:

[2] In East Anglia there is a village, distant, as it is said, four or five miles from the noble monastery of the blessed king and martyr, Edmund; near this place are seen some very ancient cavities, called "Wolfpittes," that is, in English, "Pits for wolves," and which give their name to the adjacent village. During harvest, while the reapers were employed in gathering in the produce of the fields, two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange color, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations. While wandering through the fields in astonishment, they were seized by the reapers, and conducted to the village, and many persons coming to see so novel a sight, they were kept some days without food. But, when they were nearly exhausted with hunger, and yet could relish no species of support which was offered to them, it happened, that some beans were brought in from the field, which they immediately seized with avidity, and examined the stalk for the pulse, but not finding it in the hollow of the stalk, they wept bitterly. Upon this, one of the bystanders, taking the beans from the pods, offered them to the children, who seized them directly, and ate them with pleasure. By this food they were supported for many months, until they learnt the use of bread.

[3] At length, by degrees, they changed their original color, through the natural effect of our food, and became like ourselves, and also learnt our language. It seemed fitting to certain, discreet persons that they should receive the sacrament of baptism, which was administered accordingly. The boy, who appeared to be the younger, surviving his baptism but a little time, died prematurely; his sister, however, continued in good health, and differed not in the least from the women of our own country. Afterwards, as it is reported, she was married at Lynne, and was living a few years since, at least, so they say.

[4] Moreover, after they had acquired our language, on being asked who and whence they were, they are said to have replied, "We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth." Being further asked where that land was, and how they came thence hither, they answered, "We are ignorant of both those circumstances; we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father's flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St. Edmund's, when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping." Being questioned whether in that land they believed in Christ, or whether the sun arose, they replied that the country was Christian, and possessed churches; but said they, "The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sun-rise, or follows the sunset. Moreover, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river." These, and many other matters, too numerous to particularize, they are said to have recounted to curious inquirers. Let every one say as he pleases, and reason on such matters according to his abilities; I feel no regret at having recorded an event so prodigious and miraculous.

A Letter to a Young Poet

Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life. . . .
No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity. . . .
I can't give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take the destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.
Ranier Maria Rilke, German poet, wrote a series of letters to a young poet who sent him some poems and asked him for advice. He surely had in mind that he might one day publish these as a general statement, since he saved copies without saving the name of the man they were written to. You can read the whole series here.

I should note that this is not how I think about art or, really, human life, but on the other hand Rilke was a great artist and I am not.

Let it Flow Free

There is a path that enters Patapsco State Park a block from our house. Followed a certain way, it leads down to the river, next to an old concrete dam. I was rather startled, when I went down there for the first time this year, to discover a major demolition operation under way.

The Patapsco River flows south down the west side of Baltimore, through a steep valley, before turning east to flow into the harbor. In the 19th century this was a major industrial area, with more than a dozen large factories powered by the river. Now the factories are all closed, and most of the buildings are either gone or converted to condominiums. The land along the river is mostly state park. But the river is still blocked by five major dams and numerous lesser obstructions. The state, along with a bunch of environmental organizations, has wanted for years to remove the dams so the river can flow freely. This would restore the annual runs of shad and herring that were a significant industry in colonial times, and turn the river into a major destination for canoeing and kayaking.

Alas, removing dams is expensive. But when the recession came and the Obama administration announced they wanted part of the stimulus package to be spent on environmental cleanup, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources was ready with plans to take down two of the dams. Union Dam, the one near my house, is (as you can see) almost gone, and Simkins Dam a mile downstream is slated for removal soon. That would leave one dam lower down the river, Bloede Dam, which is bigger and more modern than the others, and then two more further upstream.

No Training Wheels

I have hopes that Ben, unlike his three older siblings, may actually ride a bike. Two of the older ones learned but then forgot as soon as possible, and the third refused to learn. I regard this as a minor tragedy -- what is more fun for kids than flying down a hill on a bike? -- and it pleases me that Ben seems determined to master the vehicle.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


In the National Interest, John Gray reviews the latest book by British philosopher A.C. Grayling. Grayling is a sort of throwback who still advocates in a pure form the anti-religious ideas of the 18th-century Encyclopediasts. He thinks that if we could just free ourselves from superstition, we could achieve peace and harmony:
What horrors can be justified by appeal to the authority of the non-rational, the traditional, the superstitious, the suppositious, the evidentially unsupported, and so forth, history too often bloodily teaches.
John Gray seems to hold the view, to my mind equally wrong, that religion is essential to morality and peace. He thinks a review of communism, fascism and other twentieth-century evils demonstrates the immorality of atheism and the absurdity of faith in reason. He and Grayling are mirror images of each other, neither able to see that religion is neither the source of the human tragedy nor its cure. On average religion does not, so far as I can tell, make people or historical epochs either better or worse. Both atheists and crusaders commit atrocities, and both are capable of great humanity.

Religion is not some outside force that acts on humanity; it is part of humanity. To be religious does not change what people are, because it is simply an expression of what they are. Religion contains great beauty because creating beauty is part of what humans do; it includes oppression and violence because oppression and violence are part of what humans do. And because oppression and violence are integral parts of humanity, rejecting religion will not make them go away.

In the Beech Woods

Some years ago, when I was studying the history of the Prince William Forest Park in northern Virginia, I counted up all the trees mentioned in colonial property deeds for the area. About 80 percent of them were oaks of one kind or another, and another 10 percent were hickories. Which is what one would expect, after all, botanists call the climax forest in this part of the world the "oak-hickory forest." But as I explored the forest growing in the park now, I noticed that the most common trees were smooth-barked beeches . The same is true of the forest in the state park behind my house, where most of the trees seem to be either beeches (above) or tulip poplars like the great tree below. There are only a few oaks, and all of them seem to be more than 40 years old; almost all of the young trees are beeches.

For years I have wondered, in an idle way, why the modern forest is so different from the forest of AD 1700. On Tuesday I spoke at a National Park Service conference called the "Spotlight on Resources," where people who have been doing research for the NPS give brief, non-technical presentations of their results to an audience of NPS executives and managers. One of the speakers has been studying carbon storage in the Prince William Forest Park, and his slides included lots of graphs of tree species abundance and the like. His results confirmed my impression that oaks are in decline, and beeches are ascendant. So I thought, now is my chance to ask my question to someone who will know the answer! As soon as the morning session was over I grabbed him and said, "Why is the composition of the forest changing?" He said, "Well, we don't really know."


From talking to him and another botanist I learned that there are theories about why this is happening. One concerns fires. The Indians burned the forest regularly, in the course of hunting and because it encourages the trees they wanted more of, such as hickories and black walnuts. It may be that fires encourage oaks and discourage beeches, so that modern fire control is changing the forest. This raises the question of how "natural" the oak-hickory forest is, since the Indians burned the forest on a regular basis for 5000 years.

The other theory concerns deer. There were several talks and posters about deer at the conference, and one of the speakers said there are now ten to fifteen times as many deer in our region as there were in prehistoric times. Deer, it seems, would rather eat oak seedlings than beech seedlings, and studies have shown that more oak trees sprout in plots that have been fenced to keep deer out. This makes sense, but on the other hand I am a little suspicious of all the deer talk. The excess of deer seems to be the fall back explanation for every biological change right now -- at least, every biological change that can't be pinned on global warming. But whatever the reason, deer, fires, warming, or something else, the forest is changing before our eyes.

The Longest Exposure

British artist Justin Quinnell left a homemade pinhole camera containing a sheet of photographic paper strapped to a telephone pole for six months, recording the path of the sun in the sky from solstice to solstice.

From the Rubble

After years of delays, the building that will be known as 1 World Trade Center is finally rising in Manhattan. It has been redesigned to make it harder to knock down and it has lost the "Freedom Tower" name that former Governor Pataki bestowed on it in a fit of 9-11 patriotism. The NY Times has a panoramic view of ongoing construction, which I think is a little weird, I mean, right now it just looks like 240 feet of girders. I kind of like the design of the building, and I think the compromise worked out for the site is a good one. At first it bugged me that so much valuable space had been set aside for a monument to the acts of terrorists, but I am getting over that. Most of the monument will be a sort of park, which Manhattan could certainly use more of, and I suspect that the monument will turn out to be a major tourist attraction and therefore an economic engine in its own right. I also find it fitting that this is going on in the midst of a severe recession that has idled so many construction workers; just as the Empire State Building provided jobs and hope in the Depression, so the two new towers of the World Trade Center are providing jobs and pointing toward the emergence of the city from the aftermath of financial collapse.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Bleeding Glacier

Today's true but really really weird story is "Blood Falls," in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, eastern Antarctica. The water seeping from the glacier is tinted red by iron oxide (rust). Its source is an "iron-rich hypersaline lake" hidden underneath 400 meters of ice, several kilometers from Blood Falls. The water of this strange lake contains a whole ecosystem of bacteria that metabolize sulfur and iron ions.

Religion among the Downtrodden

William Dalrymple's latest book about India is Nine Lives, which tells the stories of nine holy men and women. Wendy Doniger wrote a great review in the TLS back in January, which I just read. The characters include a dancing Sufi, a holy prostitute, a Buddhist monk, a naked Jain, and blind a minstrel who sings with a wandering sect of "Bauls", or "crazies." The striking thing to me was than most of these people entered religious lives after undergoing great personal pain -- they became refugees because of war or natural disaster, watched their loved ones die, were beaten, raped and abused by their families. In religion, they found both a place of safety, and a path to joy. Says the minstrel of his singing, "It makes us so happy we forget what sadness is."

On the other hand, many of the conflicts that turned them into refugees were between Hindus and Muslims, and other suffered savage persecution because of their low caste.

I read these things and I ask, what is religion? Is it not, sometimes, a sort of distillation of what is most powerful in human emotions? Is not a religious hatred an intensified and ritualized hatred? Is faith, maybe, the most optimistic sort of optimism? Is the believer's joy, sometimes, the most ecstatic sort of joy, a joy that justifies even the most awful and persecuted lives?

The Revolutionary and the Monk

When the Chinese Colonel told the Tibetans that he had come to liberate them, "the abbot replied that he could not liberate us, as the Lord Buddha had showed us that it was up to each man to liberate himself."

--Wendy Doniger, reviewing William Dalrymple's Nine Lives

Why Do We Cry?

Emotional tears have been shown to enhance the interpretation of sadness that is inferred from facial expressions. The current paper puts emotional tears in an evolutionary context. By using biological signaling theory, it first looks at the distinction between cues and signals, both of which provide information to recipients, except that signals have evolved for that purpose. The conclusion is that a signaling function has yet to be shown. Nevertheless, as emotional tears are likely to function as signals, an analysis of certain inevitable effects of tears on the individual hint at more than a single signaling function, depending on the context in which tears are produced. Emotional tears decrease the perception of gaze direction or of changes in pupil size, and may function as attenuators of intentions. Emotional tears are more likely, however, to function as handicaps. By blurring vision, they handicap aggressive or defensive actions, and may function as reliable signals of appeasement, need or attachment.

Source: Emotional Tears as Biological Signals from Evolutionary Psychology, 2009. 7(3): 363-370

Today in the Garden

Zinnia seedlings coming up in the annual bed, along with a volunteer morning glory.

And the first blooms on the clematis in the herb garden.

The Sun

New composite image from NASA, showing the temperature of the sun, using photos from the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Click to enlarge.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Mysterious al Baghdadi

Last week the US government said that the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, had been killed in a joint US-Iraqi raid. Which is interesting, because the Iraqi government has reported killing or capturing him half a dozen times before, and the US government has at times said that al Baghdadi does not even exist:
It was a bit different this time, in that U.S. officials confirmed the death reports, as they hadn’t before. But the better question might be how many times al-Baghdadi has been born. The Times noted that al-Baghdadi was “once said to be fictional”—and the ones doing the saying were not conspiracy theorists but American officials (there is a difference). There was speculation that al-Baghdadi was a name picked up and passed around by several different people, like Green Lantern. Back on July 19, 2007, the Times wrote that Brigadier General Kevin Bergner said that al-Baghdadi was a “ruse,” a fake Iraqi everyman invented by foreign Al Qaeda fighters to “mask the outsiders’ dominant role.” The one who dreamed him up, according to Bergner, was al-Masri—the other man killed Sunday.
As the NY Times once put it

Sue Lowden on Chickens for Health Care

Sue Lowden is running for the Senate in Nevada as a Republican, and Nevadans are so unhappy with incumbent Democrat Harry Reid that she might win. The problem is, she's crazy. Here is her plan for health care reform:
I’m telling you that this works. You know, before we all started having health care, in the olden days our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor, they would say I’ll paint your house. I mean, that’s the old days of what people would do to get health care with your doctors. Doctors are very sympathetic people. I'm not backing down from that system.
The mind boggles.

Bad Sci-Fi/Fantasy Book Covers

The "Good Show Sir" blog is devoted to bad covers from science fiction and fantasy books. And some of them are really bad, like, I think, the one above. But some strike me as just ordinary, like the one below. Not a great triumph of design, but the picture is skillfully rendered and not ridiculous. Fortunately the site provides a way for readers to vote on the covers, and you can see that while the worst ones score more than nine out of ten, some of the unobjectionable ones have scores in the range of 3 to 4.

Weird Right Wing Paranoia

How about this one, from a woman interviewed at the tax day protest in Washington:

"Obama is considering banning fishing in America."

Sardinian Tomb

Nice photographs of a painted rock-cut tomb in Sardinia, apparently dating to the late Neolithic, 3800 to 2900 BC. Narrative here.

Sardinia has fascinating archaeology. Between about 1500 BC and 300 BC, when the island had been tied into Mediterranean trade networks but not yet absorbed by classical civilization, the islanders built dozens of stone towers called nuraghes.

A few of these were very elaborate, like the "nuragic palace" at Barumini:

The ancient Sardinians get a lot of play on new-agey web sites as a "mysterious ancient people," but really they were no more mysterious than any culture without written records. When trade and wealth came to the island, competition among the native elite intensified, leading first to very elaborate tombs and then to ever more elaborate fortresses. Eventually the Romans conquered them and they got a lot less interesting.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Glass Townhouse in Barcelona

The NY Times has a slideshow of interior photos of the six-story glass townhouse architect Luis Alonso designed for himself in Barcelona. For some reason they don't have an exterior picture, but I found one at the web site of Alonso's firm (below). I like it when architects design houses for themselves, since they have to live with the results. Alonso has certainly taken a bold approach. Among the unusual features in the house are the glass floors, which would give me vertigo but please his wife: “We each have privacy, but also a feeling of unity and harmony in the house. We are sometimes far from each other but not out of sight.”

The Dangers of Complaining

Criticism as I understand it differs entirely from attack or complaint. Its difference from complaint is especially important here, for I am persuaded that complaints against the machinations of culture today have become as poisonous as the things complained of. This is not surprising. Resentment and indignation are feelings dangerous to the possesor and to be sparingly used. They give comfort too cheaply; they rot judgment, and by encouraging passivity they come to require that evil continue for the the sake of the grievance to be enjoyed.

--Jacques Barzun

Folk Archaeology

I was just loaned a copy of a little self-published book by an amateur archaeologist from West Virginia named Robert Pyle, documenting his career. It is full of grainy, black and white photographs of weird and wonderful objects dug up or found in the Mountain State. Like this stone head, found in a "remote, wooded area", origin unknown:

Or this stone pendant, probably dating to around AD 900.

Or this bear, found "wedged in a ledge of a rock shelter":

The author and his digging buddies are into "runestones" and other proofs of ancient Irish settlement in the Americas. One of these was the "Kenova Runestone" (below), which was the focus of a lot of speculation and a couple of mystical translations before somebody pointed out that it says "Roger Cunningham." Apparently a young Celtic enthusiast just learning runes carved his name into the stone and then forgot about it.

It's a fascinating look into the minds and attics of avocational archaeologists, where enthusiasm for the mystery of the past runs strong and pure.

A Mummy from Roman Egypt

A mummy from a spectacular cemetery recently discovered at the oasis of Bahariya in Egypt. The cemetery dates to between 30 BC and AD 395.

Graduate School

Interesting article by Patricia Cohen in the NY Times about graduate school. Cohen begins by noting that while you can finish a law degree in three years, it takes an average of nine to finish a Ph.D. in the humanities. Because many students take time off, the average recipient of a humanities Ph.D. is 35 years old, and only half the students who enter a Ph.D. program ever finish.

The whole business is really quite crazy, and even though almost everyone agrees that it is crazy, nobody knows what to do about it. The greater the gap grows between the number of Ph.D.s and the number of academic jobs, the greater the pressure to emerge from graduate school with a long list of accomplishments. The incentive to finish in a hurry is also reduced when you are not sure if there will be a job waiting for you. So while we fret about about all those wasted years, the programs actually take longer and longer to complete.

From the point of view of a hypothetical Czar of American Education -- or, say, a state legislator -- the system must look like a gigantic waste. We take tens of thousands of the smartest, hardest-working young people in America and encourage them to spend a decade in the study of scholarly arcana that contribute nothing to the Gross Domestic Product and are sometimes only tangentially related to the careers they want to pursue as college teachers. (I have personally never had the chance to mention, to a student, anything that I learned in the course of my dissertation research.) Many people emerge frustrated and bitter, feeling like they have been lied to and used. "Lives are warped," as Louis Menand puts it.

As I believe I have said here before, I think the graduate school "crisis" is one version of the much broader problem of how young people figure out what to do with their lives. I know very few people who emerged from college ready to get to work, with clear ideas about a career. College graduates who don't go to graduate school often spend years bouncing around between various low-paying jobs (like archaeological field technician), not settling down into a profession for a decade or so. Many people who enter graduate school and then drop out would probably have spent those years doing some sort of semi-menial work, and compared to most such jobs, graduate school is not a bad way to spend your time. You hang around with smart people, read interesting books, learn something about the world.

So I am not certain that most graduate school dropouts, or those who finish degrees but can't get teaching jobs, have lost that much.

Where I do agree with these Cassandras is in worrying about the gap between the academic world and the rest of America. This is William Pannapacker, a loud critic of humanities education:

“Academe encourages students to think of what they’re doing as a special kind of calling or vocation which is exempt from the rules of the marketplace,” he says. Those who look to work outside the scholarly world are seen as rejecting the academy’s core values. “They socialize students into believing they can’t leave academe or shouldn’t, which is why they hang on year after year as adjuncts, rather than pursue alternative careers.”
And Stewart of the Council of Graduate Schools:

Humanities Ph.D.’s have focused exclusively on the academic job market. They don’t have anyplace else to go, or they don’t perceive that they have anyplace else to go.

There is life outside the university. I have found an interesting way to make a living, and my company is full of people from academic backgrounds who have also carved out decent niches for themselves. Seen from the outside, much of what academics concern themselves with seems petty and self-involved. The question, "What, exactly, does your research contribute to the world?" strikes many academics as not just annoying but heretical. The question, "Why should the taxpayers of your state subsidize your work?" is likely to get a reaction that is either smugly superior or angry. I ask these questions as someone who believes deeply in the higher purpose of humanistic scholarship, and who is not particularly wedded to marketplace values. But I think to turn your back on the rest of the world, to assume that non-academics are all ignorant money-grubbers, to think that corporations produce nothing but pollution and junk, to believe that all scholarly research has a value beyond price, is willfully blind and also a great disservice to students. The world is a scary enough place for students without professors filling their heads with lies about how wicked and pointless life is outside the university.

(Of course, academia is not the only closed world. Consider those ministers who have lost their faith in god, most of whom say they would like to get other jobs but feel qualified to do nothing outside the church.)


Robert Wright is too lazy to make his law perfect, and he uses environmental concerns to justify accepting a weed-strewn expanse:
As I’ve told my neighbors, I feel bad about lowering the value of their property. I mean, it isn’t my goal to have a front yard that, by standard reckoning, is unattractive. The unkept look of my lawn is just a byproduct of a conclusion I reached a few years ago: the war on weeds, though not unwinnable, isn’t winnable at a morally acceptable cost. . . .

The first of the two externalities — releasing dubious chemicals into the environment — is the inevitable result of using them on your lawn; you can’t negate this negative externality without rewriting the laws of nature. But the second externality — the depressing effect on local property values — results from something that may be mutable: prevailing opinion about what makes for an attractive lawn. The preference for Wimbledonlike lawns is not, I submit, a law of nature.

I mean, sure, an expanse of green probably does appeal to the typical human’s sense of beauty. But so does a snowcapped Alpine peak — and I’m definitely not putting one of those in my front yard. The question isn’t whether carpets of green are intrinsically attractive, but whether the more natural alternative — my front yard — is intrinsically unattractive.

I think not. If it were, why would hikers pause, look out on an unruly expanse of earth and reflect on how great it feels to escape civilization for the great outdoors? Moreover, given our species’ long history of traversing various unkept landscapes, how could natural selection have imbued us with an intense aversion to them?

If you train yourself to see perfect lawns as sources of dangerous chemical runoff, it is easy to stop loving them so much.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Virtual Sistine Chapel

A tad excessive, one must admit, but, wow.

Fake Tea Party Signs

A collection of the best signs carried by anti Tea Party demonstrators in Boston this week.

Volcanic Lightning

Photographed in Iceland over the weekend.

Lines in the Desert

From Discovery News:

British RAF pilots in the early 20th century were the first to spot the strange kite-like lines on the deserts of Israel, Jordan and Egypt from the air and wonder about their origins. The lines are low, stone walls, usually found as angled pairs, that begin far apart and converge at circular pits. In some places in Jordan the lines formed chains up to 40 miles long.

A new study of 16 of what are called desert kites in the eastern Sinai Desert confirms what many researchers have long suspected: The walls form large funnels to direct gazelle and other large game animals into killing pits. What's more, the kites are between 2,300 and 2,400-years-old, were abandoned about 2,200 years ago and are just the right size to have worked on local gazelles and other hooved game.

More Pictures.

Volcanic Ash and Risk Assessment

I don't agree with the hyped up tone of this little essay by Frank Furedi, but I agree that the flight ban is another example of the screwed-up way we assess risks to the public. In our system, any risk that can be used to get news viewers, or to beat one's political opponents, gets exaggerated beyond reason, while we ignore real and present dangers like driving in cars.
Whatever the risks posed by the eruption of a volcano in Iceland, it seems clear that the shutting down of much of Europe’s air space is not just about the threat posed by clouds of ash to flying passengers. We live in an era where problems of uncertainty and risk are continually amplified, and where our fearful imaginations can make these problems seem like existential threats. Consequently, unexpected natural events are rarely treated simply as unexpected natural events – instead they are swiftly dramatised and transformed into ‘threats to human survival’. . . .

I am not a natural scientist, and I claim no authority to say anything of value about the risks posed by volcanic ash clouds to flying aircraft. However, as a sociologist interested in the process of decision-making, it is evident to me that the reluctance to lift the ban on air traffic in Europe is motivated by worst-case thinking rather than rigorous risk assessment. Risk assessment is based on an attempt to calculate the probability of different outcomes. Worst-case thinking – these days known as ‘precautionary thinking’ – is based on an act of imagination. It imagines the worst-case scenario and then takes action on that basis. In the case of the Icelandic volcano, fears that particles in the ash cloud could cause aeroplane engines to shut down automatically mutated into a conclusion that this would happen. So it seems to me to be the fantasy of the worst-case scenario rather than risk assessment that underpins the current official ban on air traffic.
Our problems with risk assessment are most apparent in our response to terrorism. Because every political leader knows that a single successful terrorist attack could be the end of his career, and because the voters have somehow been convinced that terrorism is a danger that is both awful and entirely preventable by sufficient toughness, we go to absurd lengths to avoid small risks.

Cassini's Mission Extended

Seven more years!

Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004 for a four-year mission, but it was so successful that NASA gave it a two-year extension, to September 2010. Then, in February, NASA extended it a second time for what it calls the Solstice mission, lasting until Saturn’s northern hemisphere summer in 2017. If all goes as planned, on Sept. 15, 2017, Cassini will die a warrior’s death, diving inside the rings for 22 spectacular orbits on the fringes of Saturn’s atmosphere before plunging into the planet.

Cassini made it to its first, two-year extension in part because the science was simply too good to pass up. But another reason was that it performed so well and remained so healthy that it was left with enough unused propellant to enable it to maneuver through 64 additional orbits, after having already completed 75 in its first four years.

Cassini is not using as much fuel as expected because the controllers have gotten skilled at maneuvering it using the gravitational pull of Saturn and its moons, which is a pretty cool trick.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Just a note to say we have put off our trip to Scotland. Our plane might be flying tomorrow, but British Airways put out a plea for anyone whose travel is "not essential" to delay flying so stranded people can get home. And, honestly, we just haven't been able to get in vacation mode, not knowing if we would be going or not. So we decided to be good citizens of the world and reschedule for the end of May.

UPDATE: Turns out our flight was canceled anyway, at 11 AM yesterday. So here's hoping things have been sorted out in a month.